J.K. Simmons On Playing A Neo-Nazi On HBO's 'Oz' Simmons was a regular on the HBO drama, which depicts the brutality of life in a maximum security prison. He spoke to Terry Gross in 1998.
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J.K. Simmons On Playing A Neo-Nazi On HBO's 'Oz'

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J.K. Simmons On Playing A Neo-Nazi On HBO's 'Oz'

J.K. Simmons On Playing A Neo-Nazi On HBO's 'Oz'

J.K. Simmons On Playing A Neo-Nazi On HBO's 'Oz'

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Simmons was a regular on the HBO drama, which depicts the brutality of life in a maximum security prison. He spoke to Terry Gross in 1998.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. Last week, actor J. K. Simmons received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role as jazz instructor Terence Fletcher in the film "Whiplash." Fletcher is abrasive and abusive. But he's also revered by his students at an esteemed New York school of music. One first-year student wants nothing more than to be chosen as the drummer of Fletcher's prestigious jazz band. When he gets picked for the band, he starts attending the practices where all the student players try to perform impeccably because if they don't, they will incur the wrath of their temperamental bandleader. In this scene, the young drummer has just started playing with the band and is having trouble keeping time. Miles Teller plays Andrew Neiman, the student. Fletcher gets in his face - first verbally, then physically.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHIPLASH")

J.K. SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Five, six, seven.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ BAND PLAYING)

SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Not quite my tempo. It's all good. No worries. Here we go. Five, six, seven.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ BAND PLAYING)

SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher): You're rushing. Here we go. Ready? Okay. Five, six, and -

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ BAND PLAYING)

SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Dragging just a hair. Wait for my cue. Five, six, seven.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ BAND PLAYING)

SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Rushing. Five, six, and -

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ BAND PLAYING)

SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Dragging. Five, six, and -

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ BAND PLAYING)

SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Why do you suppose I just hurled a chair at your head, Neiman?

MILES TELLER: (As Andrew Neiman) I don't know.

SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Sure you do.

TELLER: (As Andrew Neiman) The tempo?

SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Were you rushing, or were you dragging?

TELLER: (As Andrew Neiman) I don't know.

SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Start counting.

TELLER: (As Andrew Neiman) Five, six, seven...

SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) In four, damn it. Look at me.

TELLER: (As Andrew Neiman) One, two, three, four...

(SOUNDBITE OF SLAP)

TELLER: (As Andrew Neiman) One, two, three, four...

(SOUNDBITE OF SLAP)

TELLER: (As Andrew Neiman) One, two, three, four...

SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Now, was I rushing, or was I dragging?

TELLER: (As Andrew Neiman) I don't know.

SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Count again.

TELLER: (As Andrew Neiman) One, two, three, four...

(SOUNDBITE OF SLAP)

TELLER: (As Andrew Neiman) One, two, three, four...

(SOUNDBITE OF SLAP)

TELLER: (As Andrew Neiman) One, two, three, four...

SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Rushing or dragging?

TELLER: (As Andrew Neiman) Rushing.

SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) So you do know the difference.

BIANCULLI: Terry spoke to J. K. Simmons in 1998, when he starred as another scary character - neo-Nazi Vern Schillinger HBO prison series "Oz." The program, which ran for six seasons, chronicled the lives of inmates and correctional officers in a prison's experimental unit. Schillinger was violent, sadistic and psychologically damaged, like most of the other inmates at the unit. Early in the first season of "Oz," the neo-Nazi torments his new cellmate, a young lawyer and turns them into a sex slave. In this scene, Schillinger has stolen his cellmate's family photos and is using those photos to further intimidate the scared newcomer.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "OZ")

SIMMONS: (As Vern Schillinger) You got a lovely family. I'm amazed you haven't showed me these pictures before - amazed and a little hurt. I hope you don't mind me finding these hidden underneath your mattress. My wife is dead. But I got two sons - 17 and 16. Handsome [bleep] kids, too - good Aryan stock, you know? My sons are devoted to me. I am an icon to them because I went to prison for my beliefs. They would do anything I asked them to - steal, maim, kill. Maybe I should have them go visit your family. Just a little friendly call? What do you think - my sons and your wife? My sons and your daughter?

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

J. K. Simmons, let me ask you to describe your character, a Vern Schillinger on "Oz."

SIMMONS: He's the leader of the Aryan Brotherhood in the maximum-security prison, which is of course a neo-Nazi organization. He's a prisoner in for longer and longer as it turns out. And one of the main relationships I have is with another prisoner. And he and I have sort of gone back and forth in this dominant, submissive torturous relationship.

GROSS: I thought of the high points of the first season was when your character, the neo-Nazi, got your sex slave to perform at - I guess it was the talent show or something - with lipstick on, singing "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)."

SIMMONS: Yeah, we were - actually, originally Tom wanted that to be "Somewhere Over The Rainbow." But for some reason, they didn't want to give him the rights.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SIMMONS: So I was all prepared with my..

GROSS: That was a little "Oz" joke, wasn't it?

SIMMONS: I was all prepared with my I don't think were in Kansas anymore adlib. And then they had to change it. But "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)" was, you know, a pretty good second choice.

GROSS: Who chose the song?

SIMMONS: Tom. Tom Fontana, our erstwhile leader.

GROSS: Now, the way you play the character of the neo-Nazi on "Oz," there's always this veneer of solicitousness. You always make it seem as if what you're doing is for everybody's larger good and you're an understanding kind of guy.

SIMMONS: Veneer? Vern's a sweetheart.

GROSS: Well that's how he sees himself. That's how he projects himself as he's, you know, doing some very sadistic thing to you.

SIMMONS: Yeah, You know, my general philosophy of playing bad guys, which I've sort of done, you know, half the time is, you know, very few people who we view as bad guys get out of bed and think what evil, terrible thing am I going to do today? Most people see their motivations as justified - as, you know, justifying whatever they do. And that's what I try to go with.

GROSS: Do you get any letters from members of neo-Nazi groups who have strong opinions about your portrayal of neo-Nazi?

SIMMONS: I haven't. I have had a couple of people come up to me on the street. But the only two people who came up to me and were sort of a little confused about the line between, you know, drama and reality where people who sort of agreed with the philosophy of Vern Schillinger and came up to me and said, oh, hey, you're that guy on that show "Oz." And I said, yeah. And they said, hey, man, I dig what you're saying. You know, that's, you know, and I sort of try to go my merry way as quickly as I can 'cause that's scary on two different levels. First of all, that, you know, that there are a lot of people who agree with that philosophy out there, and second of all that it's only a play, you know?

GROSS: You're right.

SIMMONS: We're just pretending.

GROSS: "Oz" was the first time I actually noticed you. I actually realized -well, who, I mean, well, who is this guy? He's really great. Let me find out more about him. And I'm wondering, where were you before that?

SIMMONS: At the Bigfork Summer Playhouse in Bigfork, Montana, doing musical theater, which is where I started out when I was in college in the '70s in Montana. And I bounced around doing regional theater all over the country for a lot of years. And when I finally got things going in New York, it was all on stage also. I did several Broadway shows and really just three or four years ago started doing television and film - things that people might actually recognize me from.

GROSS: Now, why did it take so long for you to break into television and film?

SIMMONS: Well, because I was - at first, when I started doing this, I just thought it would be kind of a fun thing to do. I never had intention of coming to New York or LA and actually doing more than scraping by - you know, doing plays. And as my career sort of progressed of its own volition, I did come to New York. I did Broadway shows. And I started realizing that this is actually how I'm going to make my living. So maybe I should try to do television and film and make a better living and get an occasional residual check so I can pay a mortgage someday. And, you know, I went shopping around for agents who I thought could help me more with those kinds of jobs. And I ended up in a big hit Broadway show - the revival of "Guys And Dolls" a few years ago - which all of us in that show ended up getting a lot of attention. And that helped sort of launch other aspects of our careers.

GROSS: Now, I saw that revival on Broadway and I guess I saw you and didn't realize it at the time because I hadn't yet seen you in "Oz."

SIMMONS: I played Benny Southstreet, Nathan's right-hand guy.

GROSS: So you get to sing in the oldest established permanent floating craps game in New York.

SIMMONS: Well, I sang the title song, "Guys And Dolls" with Walter Bobbie. And I sang the "Fugue For Tinhorns." (Singing) I got the horns right here.

Yeah, it was a great job, it was great. Fun show.

GROSS: I think we should hear you sing. So why don't we play something from the cast recording of the Broadway revival of "Guys And Dolls?"

SIMMONS: Oh good. I thought you were going to make me sing live, and I didn't warm-up.

GROSS: (Laughter). So let's see. You've said you're on "Fugue For Tinhorns." Why don't we play the part that you sing on the song? Or, one of the parts that you sing?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FUGUE FOR TINHORNS")

SIMMONS WITH CAST: (Singing) I'm pickin' Valentine 'cause on the morning line the guy has got him figured at five to nine. Has chance. Has chance. Guy says the horse has chance. For Paul Revere I'll bite, I hear his foot's all right. Of course, it all depends if it rained last night. I know it's Valentine. The morning works look fine. Besides, the jockey's brother's a friend of mine. Needs brakes. Needs brakes. This guy says the horse needs brakes. I'll tell you, Paul Revere, now, this is no bum steer. It's from a handicapper that's real sincere. I'll go for Valentine 'cause on the morning line the guy has got him figured at five to nine. Has chance, has chance. Guy says the horse has chance. Valentine, Valentine, Paul Revere. I got the horse right here.

GROSS: What a great score.

SIMMONS: Yeah.

GROSS: So have you sung a lot on stage?

SIMMONS: Yeah. I actually was a musician in college, a composer and singer, and really intended to be the second coming of Leonard Bernstein when I got out. But I sort of segued into doing musicals and then into all aspects of theater, and then into a maximum-security prison.

GROSS: (Laughter). A natural progression.

SIMMONS: Sure. (Laughter).

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

SIMMONS: Yeah, it's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

BIANCULLI: Actor J.K. Simmons speaking to Terry Gross in 1998. Last week, Simmons received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role as jazz instructor Terence Fletcher in the film "Whiplash." Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new movie "Mr. Turner." This is FRESH AIR.

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